Unmukt Chand is animatedly recounting bungee jumping from the Macau Tower, the world’s tallest such jump. There’s a strap around his ankle that’s holding an ice pack in place, the result of a football injury. It is the eve of Delhi’s fifth-round Ranji Trophy match against Uttar Pradesh, and we’re in Mayur Vihar on the Delhi-Noida border.
“Mujhe na, woh maza aata hai. I always like being at the edge,” Chand says, before quickly adding, “but my mom will not agree.”
He’s drawing parallels with the protagonist of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a biographical story about a man who gave up his life and walked into Alaska’s wilderness. It reminds Chand of the time in Macau.
“There were three phases in that jump,” he says. “It is around 250-260 metres. The first second, my body is in shock. The next second – or maybe it’s less than that, in milliseconds – they feel like a lot more. After that, the second phase, my body came out of shock. And in the third phase I was flying and I was in control.
“In those two seconds, there was a full lifetime going on. Your body adjusts to anything. But when the mind comes in, it messes around. This is what spirituality has taught me – you don’t have to use your mind all the time.”
“When you’re at the edge, how do I describe this… the biggest fear is the fear of death, right? And if I’ve surpassed that, then any other fear is an illusion.”
Fearless, young, living on the edge. Philosophical, spiritual and purposeful. Which one is Chand?
In 2012, he was being spoken of as the next Virat Kohli, having led India to the Under-19 World Cup title with an unbeaten century in the final.
Four years later Chand was finding it hard even to make it into his home team, Delhi. He was dropped from the Vijay Hazare Trophy, and he left Mumbai Indians because of a lack of game time and hadn’t managed to sign with another franchise. He then went unsold in the IPL auction.
“By his own admission, Chand is a spiritual man these days. Between “light reads” like Into the Wild, he dips into the Gita.”
He calls it the lowest point of his life. He had been leading India A sides, but his local team had no place for him. This was when Delhi’s captain, Gautam Gambhir, and coach, KP Bhaskar, were having their infamous spat.
Gambhir argued in favour of Chand but Bhaskar was against it. “I was dropped from the Delhi team on the 17th of February; 20th was the IPL auction, and because of that I was not sold. So in a week’s time, everything had slipped away. Delhi not being there – I had never thought of that.
I came home and just fell asleep. The following day, I had nothing to do. I went to the ground and did my fitness and all. I never imagined I’d be dropped from the Ranji side. But then I realised that even if I was in the team, I might have been doing the same things.”
Chand swears by this trust in his processes and preparation. But it wasn’t always thus. Like a lot of talented players, he breezed through most of his junior cricket with only success. The peak came with the World Cup victory. What followed – advertisement deals, IPL offers, media exposure and an autobiography – was a grand, very public celebration of a young man who had no fear while batting, could carry himself impressively in a conversation, and was drawing praise from around the world.
Not many Indian teenagers have experienced that before. One such was Kohli. “When Virat won at 19, he was in the Indian team within a year,” his coach, Sanjay Bharadwaj, says. “Unmukt didn’t get that. And you’ll see, those who are in the team now are all from the 2008 U-19 batch, from Virat’s group. The exposure he should have got [Indian team selection], he [Chand] didn’t get.”
This played on the mind of a young man who had got everything in a hurry up to that point. Every innings he set out to play started off as a quest to make a century. But the Ranji seasons either side of the World Cup weren’t particularly good for him.
In his first Ranji season, Chand was Delhi’s second highest run getter, but the following season, the one leading up to the Under-19 World Cup, he made only two fifties in 11 innings. The season after the World Cup, he made three fifties and a hundred in 13 innings. In fact, since his debut season, his first-class average has never exceeded 40. At the time of writing, it languishes under 35. By the standards he sets for himself – a “mega season” which makes selection “unquestionable” – the odds of making the senior team after the World Cup win were low.
Bharadwaj agrees. “I told him that till he scores 1000-1500 runs in Ranji, he’s never going to make it to the Indian team. Guys like Ajinkya Rahane and whoever else has struggled and come up have got 1000 runs consistently.
Delhi had a two-week break before the home game against Uttar Pradesh, and Chand worked on what Bharadwaj describes as “feel” – a mix of balance at the crease, grip on the bat, strength of the wrists, and trigger movement. The feel, Bharadwaj believes, is right. It’s going to bring him two or three centuries in the games to come. “100%.”
In the opening chapter of On Warne, Gideon Haigh quotes cultural historian Leo Braudy’s observation that those who succeed in youth sometimes become symbolic before they become real. In few places other than sport is this better illustrated; and nowhere in cricket is it more true than in India – more so after the birth of the IPL, where creating icons is good business.
“The exposure came because of his performances,” Bharadwaj says. “It’s wrong when you get exposure without performances, which wasn’t the case. So as soon as he was a little down, he must have had some negative influence from his surroundings. You hear unwanted things from outsiders. It’s bound to happen when you’re a World Cup superstar.”
To this day, highlight clips on Youtube of Chand’s innings in the World Cup attract comments that accuse him of “running behind money and fame”. It’s among the most common criticisms an Indian player can cop.
“People talk about distraction in a very narrow sense,” says Chand. “Distraction doesn’t always mean that a player is partying or not putting in the work. Or that he’s enjoying life with his friends more. This is what people think of as distractions. But I don’t think so. The days are gone when these things used to happen. Everyone has become so professional now.”
“He used to like reading a lot. And talking and asking questions. Cricket has a lot of people who aren’t educated very well, who can’t speak that way. Those kind of boys felt like he was buttering up to me”
Most of his publicly documented life suggests he was first a balanced boy and then a responsible man. Tales of his junior days are filled with praise for his diary habit, and his autobiography features a copy of an entry he wrote as a 12-year-old, about the time he was rated “very good” by Bishan Singh Bedi.
As a reserved, studious teenager, Chand learnt early that those who can talk, will. Bharadwaj recalls: “When he was in 11th standard and playing really well, I told him that he would surely play Ranji in two-three years if he carried on that way. He asked me, ‘If I play like this, won’t I play this year itself?’ That didn’t go down well with the seniors, who jeered at his attitude and asked me what he thought of himself.
“I thought those who are uneducated would obviously see it as arrogance,” Bharadwaj says, “but I saw it as a sign of confidence. I said he would play in two years or perhaps that very year… and it happened too. He was in the one-day team.
“He used to like reading a lot. And talking and asking questions – to coaches and to the other players. Cricket has a lot of people who aren’t educated very well, who can’t speak that way. Those kind of boys felt like he was buttering up to me.”
Five years is a long time in cricket, and Chand tells me in very simple terms how they have been – high-low, high-low, then rock bottom last year. “Initially I used to really get affected by these things. Now I’ve realised I’m not playing in heaven. These things do happen. I’ve learnt to keep my self balanced and valuing life. When I won the World Cup, things were different. As a 19-year-old you want to win over the world. Of course I still want to do those things, but I’m only 24.
“The world sees things only in terms of performances and results, and they’ll add on to the story or edit it, whatever. But there’s a personal journey going on. Maybe it happens to everyone at this age. Your perceptions change again and again,” Chand says, before pausing for a moment and sneaking a laugh at himself. “I’ve become a philosopher!”
That suggestion plays perfectly into the scene. Above his right shoulder, a frame hangs. The message enclosed says: “Follow your own path when travelling the road of life.” Not too far on the other side, among many trophies, another mounting says, “The best things in life come with patience.” By his own admission, Chand is a spiritual man these days. He is reading Rajiv Malhotra’s Being Different, a work that looks at western culture from a dharmic perspective. Between “light reads” like Into the Wild, he dips into the Gita. Why not, he asks, when there are people who know other scriptures in their entirety? Through our conversation, he also names Eckhart Tolle, Osho, Rumi and Robin Sharma, because he finds his “nature very aligned to these things.”
Does the spirituality influence how he plays his cricket?
“I’ve meditated since I was 15. I’ve worked with Badri Narayanan, a mental coach in the US who works with Shikhar [Dhawan] and has worked with guys like [Andy] Murray and [Roger] Federer. I have a spiritual guide too, and she has got me into a different zone, getting into my sub-conscious and eradicating fear.”
When I try to draw a parallel between his career and that of Dhawan’s – a star at the Under-19 World Cup in 2004 who only became an India regular in 2013 – Chand latches onto the opportunity to drive a point home.
“When he was dropped by India, he came back to Ranji. He played three games and flopped. Then the one-dayers. Flopped. T20s, flopped, till the last match, where he got 70 not out. So if you look at that, there are around 15 matches where he flopped. As an international player, that is.
“Then he got a hundred in the Deodhar Trophy. KL [Rahul] got injured and Dhawan went to the Champions Trophy. Then Murali Vijay got injured before the Tests and [Dhawan] was asked to join the team. He wasn’t first choice, but KL had a stomach ache, and he got in.”
He’s speaking of this year, and that famous comeback Test in Galle against Sri Lanka, where Dhawan made 190 in the first innings. “He came as a one-day player and then became a Test player. It [the transition] happens when you taste success,” Unmukt says.
If Gambhir is the mentor in the dressing room, Dhawan is the pal – the one he relates to most. Their mentalities are the same, and they’re just as spiritual.
In the moments before I leave, we chat in the study of the Chand household – an improvised space that used to be a balcony. There must be at least 500 books on shelves there. He points to boxes that supposedly contain more, and then jokes about how most of the furniture in the house – the one he’s grown up in – is dedicated to storing books. Many of them belong to his father, Bharat Thakur Chand, a former economics professor who is now the vice-principal of a government school. Chand attributes the more scientific volumes to an uncle, who he says is a “genius who knows about everything”.
“My book happened because of my cricket, not because writing was an option. If you feel too secure, you lose the intensity”
As the conversation veers off, he tells me he dreams of owning a café when he retires, one that has a library attached.
“I’ve never thought about what would happen without cricket. I’ve never thought – if not this, then what? I’ve always been this way. For me, this is the only option. Out of that option, things happen to you. My book happened because of my cricket, not because writing was an option. If you feel too secure, you lose the intensity.”
If the last few years have been a battle to keep up his intensity, it seems Chand has succeeded. The brooding demeanour he has during our conversation is matched on the field. At the crease against UP, he looks focused, sometimes to the point where it appears he’s going into his shell. Twice he shoulders arms to balls coming in and survives lbw shouts. In the first innings he looks meek in comparison to his opening partner, Gambhir, and gets trapped on the back foot trying to nudge a spinner through square leg. In the second, he’s more relaxed as he picks up boundaries to kick-start Delhi’s chase of 252. Bharadwaj’s century prophecy is starting to make sense when he falls for 49.
After Delhi’s win, I get a glimpse into the change room as head coach Bhaskar speaks to the press. Most players are huddled near the exit door, with one head towering above the rest – Ishant Sharma is obliging some selfie-seekers. Chand is on the other side, watching what looks like game footage.
“I’m sure today’s innings , out of sheer value, will do a lot of good for him. We hope he uses it to come good in the remaining games. We’ve always known he has the talent. He’s extremely talented. He’s still young, he’s not over the hill,” Bhaskar says.
Chand is chipping away, doing the right things, analysing. Through our conversation, he repeats that success will come when it has to. He has become more open now than the 19-year-old who wrote that he should never show his anxiety.
He’s the kind of guy you would wish runs upon. But the race to 1000 is a tough one, and it’s one he needs to win.